a year, a family, a continent and a camper trailer
I'm a Brisbane-based writer and mother of two children--one deaf and one hearing. I'm also a sessional academic at the University of Queensland, where I teach literature and creative writing. In 2016, my husband and I took the kids out of school and travelled around Australia with a camper trailer, visiting deaf schools along the way. When we found Toowong State School, it was so good, we decided to move to Queensland! We still have the trailer and take off for the bush whenever we can.
Our last three days have been up in the mountains, in Eungella, meaning ‘land in the clouds’. Before invasion, this place was inhabited by the Biria and Wiri tribes. When the Europeans arrived, trees were cut for timber and the rich soil is used for dairy farming. Thankfully, Eungella National Park was established in 1941, preserving a great deal of rainforest.
Our first day was completely in the cloud, so we spent it mostly indoors playing games and reading books. That afternoon the clouds parted and we headed to Broken River, where we spotted heaps of platypus, turtles and a few kingfishers.
The rainforest is full of walks, but the girls were sick of walking . . . and so we ran. We timed ourselves running a 700 metre track. Again and again and again. K was fastest.
Then the girls found a vine to climb.
It’s hard to believe the girls and I will fly back to Brisbane tomorrow. And Monday there’s school, work, meetings, and a lot of laundry. Lee has a list of jobs a mile long, but he’ll stop off at Agnes Waters for another surf on the drive back to Brisbane. It’s been magic to slow down in the bush once again.
While Brisbane sat in lockdown, we were extremely lucky to spend last week in Cape Hillsborough National Park. The water was beautiful, but uninviting:
But the part iron-ore volcanic rocks on the beach were perfect for climbing!
And with no phone, there was plenty of time for reading. K read most of Stephen King’s It in four days. Rhiannon finished The Ickabog and is onto Nevermore. I read Devil in the White City, about Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Expo and the serial killer H. H. Holmes. Lee’s enjoying Venero Armano’s Firehead.
Then it was time to pack up and head to Platypus Bush Camp, where we stayed on our trip round Australia in 2016. It was as perfect as I remembered.
We’ve just spent four days and nights in the rainforest with no wi-fi and on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most relaxed, I’m sitting on 11.
This magic spot is located in the rainforest with a natural pool and showers with three walls that open onto the outdoors (I spotted an emerald pigeon while showering). There’s a campfire where we made friends, and viewing area for platypus. This is about the sweetest camp spot in Australia. Thank you, Wazza! He’s the old man who built this retreat 26 years ago.
Aside from a run-in with a vicious hairy Mary vine (it seems even the horticultural naming is sexist in Queensland) it was a perfect four days.
The sign name for Mackay is M and SUGAR. Sugarcane is everywhere here. The industry is worth $2 billion a year in the state of Queensland, but its history is far from sweet. Sugarcane seeds arrived in Australia with the First Fleet of convicts in 1788, but it didn’t take off until it was planted in Queensland in 1862. The far north proved a perfect climate, but it was hard to find anyone willing to do the backbreaking cane cutting in the heat and humidity of the tropics.
According to the Australian Sugar Museum, people were used to the ‘cheap compliant labour of convicts’. Without convicts or slaves, it was near impossible to find anyone willing to work the fields.
Eager businessmen turned to the Islands east of Australia. They convinced, coerced and kidnapped people from the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and elsewhere. Once in Australia, these Islanders found they themselves stuck in low-payed exhausting work. They were exposed to diseases and slave-like treatment. If they tried to leave, they were arrested and imprisoned. 30% of workers died.
Over 40 years 62,000 Islanders were brought to Australia. Then, in 1904, the White Australia policy was introduced and these workers were sent back to their home countries.
It’s hard to imagine this misery as we camp in the stunning surrounds of Cape Hillsborough National Park.
There’s no Wi-Fi where we are, just a lot of kangaroos, mountains, shallow blue waters and volcanic rocks ideal for climbing.
While much of the world continues to suffer with COVID-19, and Sydney faces another lockdown, we are feeling extremely lucky here in Queensland. We may not be able to cross borders, but this state that we now call home is 1.85 million square kilometres. If it were a country, it would be the 16th largest, and it has just 5 million people, mostly in the southeast.
This school holidays we’re headed to the Great North.
Last week Lee dragged the trailer out of storage (our home for a year in 2016). He opened it up, aired it out, sanded the rust off the poles, spray-painted them with something silver and toxic that wafted in through the windows as I was marking the final papers of the semester, and loaded it with surf boards, bathing suits, kayaks, a neighbour’s paddleboard, winter woolies and books.
With all the roadworks, it took Lee 7 hours to drive to 1770 (about 130 kms north of Bundaberg). He got there just in time for sunset. It’s winter in the tropics, and temperatures on Wednesday night got down into the high teens, so campers lit little fires on the beach.
The next two days were spent surfing in Agnes Waters, the sister town to 1770 and the last place to surf up the coast of Queensland.
Today was the last day of term 2 for the girls, I’ve finished the marking, and we’re packing our bags. Lee (love him) is continuing to drive our camper north, stopping over to camp at a golf course in St. Lawrence. Tomorrow morning at 8.40 a.m., barring any last minute lockdowns, the girls and I will fly to Mackay, where Lee will meet us and we’ll travel on to Cape Hillsborough National Park and set up camp. Holidays, here we come!
We arrived on Boxing Day and set up camp in a sultry heat that hardly lifted in our seven days at the Woodford Folk Festival.
It didn’t start out great–I got my bike stolen on the first day. Miraculously, it showed up the following day, locked to a different tree at a separate entrance! Lee found it. Amazing. And so the Woodford magic began . . .
But what is Woodford? Words fail as I try to explain this other-worldly experience. I’ll start at the end . . . There were 30,000 people camped on the hilly green fields outside the festival for a week, and at the end for that week, when we packed up and drove out (or, rather, sat in a long line of cars waiting to drive out) there was no rubbish left behind.
What is Woodford? Woodford is ten thousand tents, yoga and ukes, hundreds of bands, a fire choir, butterflies, face paint, body odour and bircher muesli. Woodford is strangers dancing together, volunteers smiling through their sweat. Woodford is music and love and learning, acrobats, jugglers, giant puppets and handmade lanterns.
Take tens of thousands of people of all ages who care about the planet and music and just generally getting on with one another, unleash them on a village built from a hundred types of creativity, from bamboo structures, to actors in character wandering around, giant puppets, hand-made lanterns, over a thousand musical groups and half a dozen circus acts. Put them together in a well-designed space with large tents and food stalls (oh, the food). Give it all over to 3,000 volunteers, and what happens in this magical mixture?
People get along—in the heat, in the rain, in the mud, in the crowds of happy Woodfordians.
As Randy, the purple puppet (off the ABC) said, there’s no “queue rage” at Woodford. You’re waiting in line to buy your samosa and the person in front turns to ask, “Are you having a good festival?”
There was something for everyone. The girls had an entire Children’s Festival with countless crafts, circus arts, music, children’s shows, face-painting—everything was free except the food, which was cheap and healthy.
Another other-worldly aspect of Woodford was that, if you’re deaf, you can book your own interpreter for whatever you like. That’s right, whatever you want to see, you just text and the response is, “Your wish is our command.” When I asked if they were getting paid, I got a text back, “Of course, in butterflies and rainbows.”
K’s first concert ever was John Butler, interpreted. She loved it.
One hot afternoon we booked an interpreter and went, all four of us, to see a new young duo, “Hollow Coves”, who write about their restless love of travel. They seemed to be singing of our life on the road. To sit and experience music with my deaf daughter—with the whole family and no one missing out—was heavenly.
When I later told this to one of the volunteer interpreters she said, “That’s so great and so sad at the same time.” (Sad because this is the only place K can ever see whatever every other hearing person has full access to all the time.)
R loved the face-painting—hats off to the small army of volunteer women slaving away in the face-painting tent to produce unicorns and rainbow fairies on a steady stream of eager little faces.
I started the day with yoga, which I haven’t done in years. Picture this: a yoga instructor on stage conducting 100 bodies, moving us in sync from downward dog to plank, to cobra.
I heard talks by Bob Hawke, Tracey Spicer, Noel Pearson, a panel of young Muslims talking about their personal encounters with Islamaphobia, and a fascinating presentation on how the solution Australia’s unaffordable housing is to build posh boarding houses. Ian Ugarte told us that on any given night there are 12 million empty beds in Australia.
Lee loved the music, especially the band, 19-Twenty. Lee lived in the Blues Tent. Each night I took the girls home earlyish and Dad headed out for more music and beer.
One bonus to having a deaf kid at Woodford was that we got to sit close to the interpreter in the front row for the Welcoming Ceremony and the Fire Ceremony at the end. They went out with a massive show of music and interpretive dance depicting a sort of industrial society of violence and production that realized the error of its ways, burned all the spears and ended with a sea of dance and love. Ah, Woodford.
To leave Woodford was to depart from a planet of love, music, art and creativity. Odd to think that while we were away in that beautiful other place, real world leaders were bragging about how big their nuclear bomb button was.
We’re headed back to that real world, slowly. First a week at Minnie Water, NSW with friends, then back home (for now) to Sydney. How utterly lucky we are.
South West Rocks was picturesque, especially kayaking down the Macleay River at sunset alongside herons, pied cormorants, grebes and white-bellied sea eagles.
The girls played endless imaginary games in the shade of the gum trees, pausing only for a swim in the mornings and evenings, when the sun wasn’t too strong. Pre-Christmas camping in Australia is bliss. After Christmas the entire country seems to go camping. We’ll meet most of them in Woodford tomorrow, no doubt. Rain is predicted.
Yesterday we packed up in South West Rocks, NSW and drove seven hours to Caloundra, QLD, where we got a last minute deal and booked ourselves into an air-conditioned resort so we can leave early Boxing Day—without having to pack up—and (hopefully) get a good camp spot at Woodford.
Now, I’m not big on resorts and I’ve never stayed somewhere like this where you can drink beer while you watch your kids whiz down a waterslide—oh, well, except on Christmas Day and Good Friday, when there’s no alcohol served without food in Queensland. What with the heat and humidity and Christian alcohol restrictions, I almost feel I’m back in Georgia. My friend, Katrina, told me once that Queensland was the Alabama of Australia. (Could we move here??) The kids get a bit manic with all this manufactured fun—waterslides and trampolines.
I miss the bush and I must say the best part of this resort was leaving it this morning, heading off with K on our bikes down the beach promenade, where we went jetty jumping with the locals.
It is nice to have air-con, though, a lovely reprieve from the heat before we hit the Folk Festival. It’s the hottest Christmas in 12 years here in Queensland. Wishing you and yours all the best for your Christmas in whatever climate you may find yourselves.
The only time anyone moves fast in Woody Head is in the shower, where, in an effort to conserve, you get two minutes of water for one dollar. I managed to wash my hair and shave one leg, which is more than enough, I reckon, for Woodford (we’ve decided to go back up the coast to Queensland after Christmas for the Woodford Folk Festival. . . more on that later).
The most strenuous event at Woody Head, a campground located in Bunjalung National Park, where we spent five long lazy days, was a WilderQuest walk around the rock pools. The walk was led by a cruisy ranger, a local high on enthusiasm and a bit low on scientific knowledge. When K asked how shells were made, he said, “I should know this. We did it at uni. The mollusk secrets calcium . . . something . . .?” Then, noticing a sea cucumber he shouted, “Hey, have a look at this! What you gotta know about the sea cucumber is he breathes through his bum hole. Pretty good party trick!!!”
The rock pools were magic. Once you stop and look, you see so much in this rich watery world: Neptune’s necklace, countless zebra snails, carnivorous mollusks and, my personal favorite, a chiton. Chitons are simple creatures who’ve been around for 520 million years and have hardly changed at all (I know a few people like this). But the most unusual creature spotted was the sea hare, a large bulbous green glob, squishing its way from one rock pool to the next.
The rock pools weren’t the only places teeming with animals. There were plenty of kangaroos, birds singing all day long and a large carpet python in the gum trees overhead.
If you’re ever in this part of the world, check out the tiny town of Iluka with the best fish around at very cheap prices—we got three fillets of local mullet (delicious) for $6. Iluka is where the mouth of the big beautiful Clarence River meets the sea. Its waters mix with the clean clear ocean and dolphins swim close to shore. The photos I took don’t do it justice.
In an effort to escape the midday heat one day, we also visited the laid-back town of Yamba, where the townsfolk are determined not to work too much. Get to Yamba early because the café kitchens close at 2. The library’s air-conditioned and open Monday, Tuesday and Friday, but closes for lunch. There’s a good used bookstore, The Book Nook.
After Woody Head, we drove down the coast to South West Rocks, where I’d already booked a campsite. Why? We’d planned to head south and cool down in the Snowy Mountains after Christmas. BUT, plans change. Friends in Brisbane suggested the Woodford Folk Festival. (Do check out this link–very cool website.) We’ve always thought of going—many of the concerts are interpreted and there are a zillion kids activities. So, this year we’ll brave the heat of inland Queensland, the mud–if it rains–and the crowds of tens of thousands of festival goers and head off to hang with the hippies for a week in Woodford.
That’s why we’ve driven south before we drive back up north again (and then head south towards home).
We returned from our trip around Australia last year in January (this year) came back to the rush and rigor of Sydney, back to traffic, school, work, endless texts and emails, hundreds of papers to mark and dozens of tradies to organize. This year, unlike the previous, went by in a flash, as city life does. There were good moments: R aced Kindy and came away with a badge, a medal and so many awards. K starred in an advert and started gymnastics. Dad built a house! I taught the most interesting Memoir class ever and won runner-up in a writing contest (with the help of my beloved writing group). Cities aren’t all bad.
We live in a most beautiful part of the world and yet . . . we’re never really here; we’re always thinking about the next hour, day, week. This year in Sydney, Lee and I pined for the quiet of the bush, the long days and that starry night sky. We missed not having to ever look at a watch. We missed having time.
So, two weeks ago, on 25 November, we whisked the kids out of school, rented out our townhouse on Airbnb for six weeks and went back up to Brisbane, to K’s favorite school from last year where, “even the canteen lady signs”. K had a magical two weeks at Toowong State School, where the signing choir is 60+ strong. The Christmas concert was rocking fun, almost entirely signed, and they sold beer to parents and kept the whole show under an hour. Brisbane, a city of just 2 million, is friendly and everyone talks to you. Bush turkeys run down the street, geckos chirp at night. K wants to move.
But Brisbane heat is thick as pea soup, and moving through it robs your energy. You have to go slow. Lee worked through the heat while R and I got to cool off in the free giant pool and air-conditioned galleries at Southbank. And now we have that old dilemma again: to leave our beautiful Bronte home for a fabulous deaf-friendly school in QLD?
Well, we’ve got time to think about it. We’re lucky to be off camping for a month in National Parks on the north coast of NSW. Stay tuned . . .
R is happy to see her toys, a tea set filled with endless cups of imaginary tea.
Lee likes being indoors–sans flies–in a house he renovated.
I like not having to trudge across the campground to pee in the morning.
But the house feels big—too big, after the four of us in a trailer for a year. K says, “I can feel the bigness even when I close my eyes in bed at night.” Often Lee and I wake in the morning with both girls squeezed into our queen-sized bed.
Moving in . . . so much stuff!
Tony, the shared Strata cat, greets us.
Moving back in was a pain, especially for Lee, who’d taken all the furniture apart to fit into a small store room, and had to reassemble everything again. So much stuff! . . . But the girls were thrilled to see Tony, the shared Strata cat.
It’s good to come home and see friends—a year older, a little stressed from city life, but much the same. “Wow, it’s been a year, already!” Everyone says.
To us, it feels we’ve been away a decade. Or more.
All the things we’ve done, the places we’ve been, all those long languid days in the bush–it feels as if we’ve been traveling for years. And there’s so much I didn’t write about, like the time we drove down a long dirt road in the Outback to a campground we weren’t sure existed, “Do you ever wonder why we’re doing this?” I asked Lee. He nodded vigorously.
There are moments etched in my memory: eating fresh oysters on Perlubie Beach in South Australia, where we camped just meters from that clear blue sea.
Kayaking on the Ningaloo Reef with sea turtles swimming all around.
Lying in bed in the dark of the trailer and hearing a pair of barking owls on the Gibb River Road, then getting up, stepping outside as dawn arrived and seeing them perched side by side in the tree above.
Watching R ride a bike for the first time through the scrapyard where we lived with friends in Darwin.
Cooking bread on the fire in the bush at night, and then—with Lee and the girls—devouring the entire loaf, still hot, smothered with butter, as we sat under the stars outside our tent.
Lying under the night sky in Budjamulla with Kaitlyn, waiting for, willing a shooting star to sail across the sky—and then it did!
Walking to the top of Mount Kosciusko with K and R and my father, through snow—the first snow the girls have ever seen.
Lee’s been working since he got back–he’s go so much work on. School starts Monday. My semester begins on 20 Feb. And here we are, back in the swing of things—play dates and shopping, parties and work, endless texts and emails, meetings, dentist appointments, schedules, protests, a house to look after, and Tony the cat.
It’s not all bad, but what a year we had. What. A. Year.
What you can’t see in the picture is the heat and the flies—millions of them. The Clarence River meanders through the mountains of northern New South Wales and it’s stunning, but . . .
The heat! The flies!
Crawling on my sweaty legs, buzzing round my ears, crawling up my nose. It was forty degrees C and sunny and humid and the flies were relentless. At sundown they went, only to be replaced by more flies—smaller ones that squeezed through the mesh windows of our tent. Flies inside the tent. It was too hot to zip up the windows so we turned out the lights to stop attracting the little blighters. That was it, 9 p.m. (felt like 8 because we’d just come from Queensland) lights out, goodnight Irene, no reading, just heat and flies crawling on us in the dark.
Luckily, there was one other family camped on the river with us with two boys. In the morning they played with our girls. I sat and watched and read Trollope and wrote and periodically walked down to the river, then into the river to submerge myself in all my clothes, the only way to cool down.
The family we met is planning a trip like ours. They’re from Sydney, but left the city ten years ago, moved to a little place called the Pocket, outside of Mullumbimby—I love that, outside of Mullumbimby, as if Mullumbimby is just a bit too busy. They have a house with a garden that backs onto a creek with a swimming hole. It sounds heavenly.
In no time we’ll be in our townhouse in Bronte, which backs onto another townhouse.
Clarence River was beautiful, but the flies proved too much. The other family left after one night. We left after two.
Next stop: Broken Head Nature Reserve, just south of Byron Bay. There we encountered the biggest rain we’ve had all year. On our first night, two thunderstorms passed overhead—thunder cracked all night and the sky was lit with lightening. Lee got up four times in the night to push the water off the canopy and the tent. Water dripped through for the first time in our year round Australia.
In the morning we were exhausted and everything was soaked.
For the first time, I looked forward to going home, to four walls and a roof, to waking up and not stepping through mud to get to the toilet.
Byron is beautiful even in the rain and Lee and K enjoyed the surf, while R and I wrote stories. We met up with our friends, Lu and Bede again. We stayed four nights in the National Park and then we drove south to another stunning place.
Minnie Water, recommended to us by Lu and Bede, is a tiny village surrounded by Yuraygir National Park. It’s paradise. We stayed three nights in Illaroo Campground, just before it started getting busy with Queenslanders on holiday.
We surfed, played in the sand, went for walks, enjoyed our solar shower, and the girls played endless imaginary games. They never fight in the bush.
Then we made our way down the coast to Port Macquarie, where we stayed at the “Murray Resort” with our generous friends, Jacqui and David and their beautiful baby. We went to the beach, played with the cats, helped put up Christmas decorations, and visited the Koala Hospital, where local sick and injured koalas go to recover.
One night Lee and I slept with the window open and heard the local koala talking, which sounded like nothing we’d ever heard before—somewhere between a grunt and an a heave—such an odd sound for that impossibly cute creature.
We left Port and headed south again to the Central Coast, where we had two more days of rain. Then we bypassed Sydney (where our house is still rented out) and visited friends who’ve recently left the rat race and now live in a stunning new house that overlooks the beach in Thirroul. Lee set up the trailer in their driveway and their son slept in it overnight! Our girls played with their boys; the dads drank Daly’s homebrew, and the mums chatted away in the kitchen.
After a fabulous weekend with friends, we drove southeast, to Canberra, to meet my parents.
Then, to the Snowy Mountains! My parents splurged (again) and rented a cabin in Kosciuszko National Park with views of Lake Jindabyne. It’s just us and the roos here. And a million flies. But that’s OK, because we’re indoors!
sunset from our lodge
Roo inspecting the rubbish
Yesterday, Christmas Eve, we climbed the tallest mountain in Australia: Mount Kosciuszko. R, 5, and Pop, 77, were the youngest and oldest respectively at the top of that magnificent look-out. We made it up and back–a 14 kilometre walk–just before a massive thunderstorm broke.
On the way up Mt. Kossy the girls saw snow for the first time. They tramped over it, slipped down it, threw snowballs and screamed with delight, It’s cold!!!